By Linda Levin
Imagine the joyful sound of children’s laughter, colorful artwork gracing walls, coat hooks and cubbies at adult-thigh level and young voices singing -- these are some of the characteristics of an engaging child care environment.
As a young mother 30 years ago, I was fortunate to be a stay-at-home mom. My children attended a neighborhood nursery school several mornings a week, and afternoons were spent with other moms in loosely-organized playgroups. Children played while mothers discussed the latest child care philosophy, new picture books, snack routines and how to support each other when we needed child care so that we could “get some work done.” That work was often part-time paid, or volunteer. I did not work full time until my children were in school.
That was then.
Today, according to the 2020 report “Stalled at the Start: Vermont’s Child Care Challenge” produced by Let’s Grow Kids, “in Vermont, 715% of children 5 and under live in families in which all available parents are in the labor force. That is more than two out of three children in the state.” In addition, according to the same report, in Washington County families are likely struggling to find care for their children: “88% of infants, 80% of toddlers and 75% of preschoolers do not have access to high-quality programs.” Working parents of the Mad River Valley are faced with the same challenge, and even if they are fortunate enough to find child care, the high cost – 30 to 40% of their income – creates stresses that affect us all.
High quality child care programs are critical. As explained in Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child’s 2020 study What is Early Childhood Development? A Guide to the Science, “healthy development in the early years (particularly birth to 3) provides the building blocks for educational achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship, lifelong health, strong communities and successful parenting of the next generation.”
CHILD CARE PROGRAMS FULL
Here in the Mad River Valley, we are fortunate to have high-quality child care programs. Unfortunately, these programs are full. According to Kira Harris, executive director at Spring Hill School in Waitsfield, which provides preschool programming for 3- and 4-year-old children, “We are fully enrolled for the remainder of this school year and next year. A wait list is first-come, first-served.” In addition, Harris indicated that “. . . our biggest challenge is not having the space to offer more programming for families. Our board of directors is discussing expanding existing programming to include more full-time slots and programming for younger and older children, but we do not have the physical space.” Sugarbush Day School in Warren is also at capacity, according to director Sara Hurley. Although they prioritize mountain employees, space is often available for nonemployees. But this past year, they were full within two weeks of opening in September.
The cost of high-quality child care is prohibitive for many parents even with two incomes. Often parents need to juggle work hours so that one parent can stay home to provide care. Fortunately, there is a House bill, H.171, being considered to financially support parents. The goal of H.171 is that a family need not spend more than 10% of its gross annual income on child care by 2025. According to Representative Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, “High quality child care is critical to the development and sustainability of our workforce, supporting families and the educational needs of our youngest Vermonters.”
Limited child care in The Valley extends beyond the school year, as well. Summer camps fill up quickly as working parents continue to need support. At Neck of the Woods (NOW), a new and growing child care center in Waitsfield, summer camp programs are already filled, with 100 children enrolled, and 15 waitlisted, according to general manager Catrina Brackett.
ADDED TO NEED
While the residential real estate business in The Valley has seen a boom over the past year, this same growth has only added to the child care need. At NOW, out of 115 campers on the list, 27 are new to The Valley. At Waitsfield Elementary School, 34 new students this year arrived from 24 new families. This is good news, as it is clear The Valley is attracting more young families. But the need for high-quality child care only increases.
In addition to the challenge of finding quality child care is the reality that median annual income for a child care worker in VT is $27,600, often without benefits. How can it be that the people who are caring for our children and doing the important work of preparing them to be future leaders are paid so poorly? It is not surprising that the demand for quality child care exceeds the supply.
There is good work being done in our community and in our state to support young families. NOW has been working hard to upgrade their new campus in the former Small Dog Electronics building in order to provide more families with high-quality child care. Businesses and state government are providing some support. There is reason to be hopeful. It is critical that our community provide support, as well, as it is in our best interest: Children who have access to high-quality child care have the greatest chances of becoming productive and empathetic members of society.
Levin, Fayston, is a NOW board member.